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How to Read Lacan (How to Read) Paperback – January 17, 2007
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About the Author
Slavoj Žižek, philosopher and psychoanalyst, heads the International Center of Humanities at Birkbeck College. His numerous books, translated into more than thirty languages, include The Parallax View and Lacan: The Silent Partners.
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There is some value in picking this book as an introduction to Zizek's work, however. First, it is shorter than the hefty volumes the Slovenian polygraph philosopher has been publishing at an amazing pace in the recent years. There is no free ramblings and wild rides going on for pages after pages, no internal back-and-forth or short circuits that substitute for an absent plotline. Everything is more compact, concise, and well-arranged. As Zizek warns in a footnote, there is a good deal of repetition between this book and other essays already published. It is, if you wish, Zizek's Best of, a medley or compilation of the most significant excerpts of his previous works. Zizek revisits the same stories, examples, and quotes, but even the most seasoned Zizek reader is not tired by this repetition. Since part of the enjoyment in reading Zizek derives from the addictive repetition of the same themes and quotes, readers familiar with Zizek's work will appreciate the recycling of previously used and reused material.
Second, this book is bereft of some of Zizek's most shocking provocations, and he abstains from his usual flirtation with political radicalism and fringe ideas. In How to Read Lacan, Zizek leaves his politics at the door. This is a welcome gesture: what passes as political engagement for Zizek may only be qualified as bizarre or spooky. It is a radical rereading of Althusser's Marxism, coupled with a postmodern denunciation of democracy, tolerance, and good manners. Besides, this essay's political neutrality is in accordance with the attitude of Jacques Lacan, who was rather conservative in his political orientation and stayed clear of the political arena.
Of course, boys will be boys, and Zizek cannot renege from his natural propensity to shock and provoke. There is this hilarious comparison of he three basic types of toilets found in Western Europe, illustrating German reflective thoroughness (the turd is laid out in front for inspection and analysis), French revolutionary radicalism (it quickly disappears into a hole), and English pragmatic liberalism (it floats in the water basin before being efficiently flushed away). There are the less tasty references to the rights of necrophiliacs to exercise their freedom, or the borderline references to anti-Semitism and sexual harassment, where Zizek comes close to endorsing the criminal attitudes he seemingly denounces.
But what makes this book stand apart in the Zizek canon is his plain, easy-to-read style. References to continental philosophy are kept at a minimum, and Zizek takes the time to explain things and make sure the reader is with him. There is no need to remedy one's lack of philosophical background with a long reading list of authors made even more obscure by the allusive and dialectic style of the commentator. If you haven't read your Hegel and your Marx, then so be it. You won't feel chastised and have to wear a dunce cap for your lack of culture. On the contrary, reading Zizek will gratify you with the feeling of entering the high ground of philosophy and metaphysics without renouncing your TV series and Hollywood movies.
Last, in reading How to Read Lacan, you may learn a thing or two about...how to read Lacan. The book could have been published in a different series as "Lacan for Dummies". Reading the original Lacan is markedly difficult, and you may need some stepping stones or crutches for this journey. Zizek provides some mnemonics and shortcuts that may help you find your way through Lacan's Ecrits or Seminars. Discussing Lacan and psychoanalysis is like taking a piss for Zizek: he seems to have done it from the cradle, and nothing seems more easy than the wordplays and esoteric formulas he interprets for us.
For example, the famous trilogy of the Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real will be remembered by the analogy with the constitutive elements of a game of chess: the rules regarding the authorized moves, the figures on the chessboard, and the context surrounding the game. "Objet petit a", the unfathomable "something" that makes an ordinary object sublime, is related to the classic figure of the anamorphosis, which reveals the true shape of an object only when viewed from a certain angle.
The story of the competition between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius in ancient Greece, to see who could paint the most realistic picture, is echoed by Lacan's ownership of L'Origine du monde, the famous picture by Gustave Courbet which Lacan kept behind a screen, only to be revealed to his most trusted guests. Canned laughter on a TV show or the compulsive recording of films that the viewer does not have the time to watch illustrates the uncanny notion of interpassivity, where the machine passively enjoys the screening on my behalf. The distinction between Ego-Ideal and superego allows Zizek to introduce the cruel and insatiable agency that bombards us with impossible demands and then mocks our botched attempts to meet them. Equipped with these notions, you will be able to read Zizek reading Lacan, and you may even dispense with the intermediary along the way.
Still, in line with the whole series, the chapters are short, thus providing explanations, anecdotes, stories and jokes in summarized form, too. Also, if you've ever read a Zizek book you'll know how messy and (oftentimes) incoherent his writing can be; this book at least has the topics more or less clearly spelled out (even then one has to carefully comb most paragraphs with a marker), making it easier to not only comprehend what Zizek is saying but to categorise it all as well.
A bonus about reading this book is that it covers almost all the key Lacanian ideas that Zizek invariably repeats and reapplies in his other books; one could even say that, conceptually, every Zizek book diverges no more than 20-30% from any other one because they're mostly about contemporizing, applying and refreshing Lacan anyway. This book explains the symbolic order, the 'lamella', the site of the Real (one and the smae with the screen which filters out the Real - go figure), hyper non-activity (or extreme passivity masquerading as activity), the subject supposed to know/believe/enjoy, libidinal investments, fantasy as escape from the world, etc. - all of these and many more are given a concise treatment which also serves as a sweet taster of what to expect in Zizek's other phone-book sized publications.
Ultimately, one has to wonder: Is Zizek's Lacanianism dependent on his Marxism or the other way around? (My guess is that he would say the question is wrongly phrased and 'blocks' the truth of his intellectual orientation)
Still, there are few (if any) better Zizek-written introductions to his own work - ironic, as this book wasn't really supposed to be about him in the first place(!). This might echo his notion that in order to look carefully at an author one needs to look 'sideways' (or, in this case, via a book about someone else). The end-product is a snapshot of Zizekian views which are themselves based on Lacan's strangest theories. In a word, we're really reading Zizek reading himself reading his mentor.